It’s a cool day and I’m sitting on a bench near the majestic Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. A young boy sits next to me. He asked me if I speak English and if so, would I help him practice? We spend the next half hour talking. He’s 16 years old, attends an English language school in town, wants to be a manager at a factory in America when he gets older, and innocently wonders if children in America learn the Uzbek language at school like he learns English. He is polite, articulate and so endearing.
I’d come to find this scenario play itself out, over and over again, during my two weeks traveling solo around Uzbekistan. Locals loved me - I was also stopped and asked to pose for pictures many, many times. I am usually mistaken for German, so when older locals did know a few words in English and could ask where I was from, they were especially excited to hear I was from America. I never got less than a resounding “Ohhhhhh. America” (thumbs up, thumbs up) “Good country. New York City. Big city. Good city”. It was nice to hear, considering at times recently I personally don’t feel so “thumbs up, thumbs up” about what’s happening in America.
Uzbekistan surprised and captivated me from the moment I arrived. Much of the country still appears the same as it did long ago: a land of onion domes, bedazzled archways, and towering minarets. There were so many beautifully ornate madrasas and mosques - and the tile work and hand painted plaster everywhere were just WOW!!!
Alongside these centuries old monuments were scores of locals enjoying ice cream cones, sitting on cheesy made-for-fun plastic (and real!!) camels, taking photos wearing silly hats, and strolling the wide open pedestrians streets lined with hawkers selling everything from hand-loomed rugs to refrigerator magnets. Despite the modern elements, I could still feel the history and get a sense of what it must have been like to see the towering buildings in the distance as people caravanned across the desert.
For me, traveling has become a way to expand my knowledge and to push my boundaries — and in the process to hopefully learn more about myself and the world around me. I was craving something a bit more culture-focused for my next trip, and having been to many of the more “popular” destinations in the past, I also wanted to explore some off-the-beaten-path places. When someone suggested I look into Uzbekistan, it seemed like an interesting option.
Not knowing much about the country, I started my research. I discovered that Uzbekistan is located in the center of Eurasia - and its most famous towns sit squarely along the ancient Silk Road. As I looked through online photos and read more about the history of this strategically placed country, I was convinced I had to visit.
Having some background about the Silk Road will help underscore the importance of Uzbekistan’s location. The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China. It was the main route of commerce between 130 BC and 1453 AD and was used to carry goods between the two great civilizations of Rome and China. From a practical perspective, silk went west while wool, gold, and silver went east.
Nearly all missionaries, scholars, and musicians who traveled the Silk Road passed through the (now Uzbekistan) ancient towns of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. But physical goods weren’t the only things exchanged: also given and received were ideas around religion, cultural traditions and customs, as well as Persian and Islamic art and teachings. Those varying influences were all highly evident as I moved around the country.
Tourism is on the rise in Uzbekistan. The president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, (who became president in 2016 after the death of Islam Karimov, an autocrat who had ruled for 27 years) has stated that increasing tourism is one of his top priorities. A simpler e-visa entrance program was rolled out recently: I received my confirmation in less than a week. A very comfortable railway allows easy movement between the main cities, making visiting all the key sites a breeze. And yet, prices for things like entrance fees and meals have remained low.
The new president has pledged to improve the country's brutal, corrupt and closed image and has declared that a “new Uzbekistan” was stepping out, as the country has been long plagued with issues. For example, in the 1960’s the Soviets (who at the time ruled Uzbekistan and the surrounding countries) decided they would grow cotton here - which made little sense considering it’s basically a desert and cotton loves water. Uzbekistan has since become one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, and in the process they have all but entirely drained the Aral Sea for irrigation and created a huge environment disaster.
Additionally, until just a few years ago, the government forced 2+ million people a year (mainly students, teachers, healthcare workers and even children) to pick cotton in the fall, which of course was condemned by many other countries. The new government has finally put a halt to that practice. One of my guides told me that the government now pays good money for people to volunteer to pick cotton, and many people sign up because they could use the funds - although many human rights advocates aren’t convinced that things have changed.
Across the country, significant restoration work has been done to the grand monuments that have stood for centuries. Although English is not widely spoken except at hotels and some restaurants (the main languages are Russian, Uzbek and Tajik), I was still able to easily manage using hand signals and a smile :-) Navigating the country was easy and enjoyable.
Uzbekistan feels to me like a country on the verge of something bigger, and I predict will be on the list of “Top Places to Visit in 2020”. In Samarkand, lovely parks and pedestrian only promenades have been developed to help make it easier to visit the ancient sites. In Bukhara, there seem to be more boutique hotels than people - and around every corner more are being built. Within the ancient, dusty walls of Khiva you can find every manner of souvenir you might be searching for and electric golf carts to transport the weary.
The country feels like it’s having a moment…tour groups from Germany, Italy and Japan were visible at all the sites. So many local people were selling goods that it was hard for me to distinguish between what was locally made and what was imported from China. The increase in tourist dollars is obviously good for the local economy. It will be interesting to see just how far the government takes the tourism industry in Uzbekistan…I worry that the lure of all that money will lead to some really poor decisions, as it has in other places I’ve visited. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.
The people of Uzbekistan were some of the kindest I have met - when I looked like I needed help, I was always offered it, even if we couldn’t communicate with each other. The locals had no problem having their photos taken, especially because so many asked for photos with me! The older women wore long skirts or dresses of every color and pattern, which charmingly clashed with their headscarves!
Uzbekistan is an absolutely fascinating place to explore and is one of the most underrated and unique places I’ve visited in a long while. From the opulent Registan in Samarkand to the dusty, twisting alleys in the town of Khiva, the country mesmerized me at every turn. Below I provide all the details from my trip, as well as a whole bunch of practical information that should help in your planning. Uzbekistan is truly a special place, and as a photographer it was a dream to visit. I highly recommend visiting - and soon - before everyone else finds out how great it is!
While you can visit all the main towns of Uzbekistan at a fairly rapid pace, I followed my motto of “travel deeper” and spent a full two weeks in this interesting country. Why rush to see the world in a blur? The extra days allowed me more time to really absorb everything, find those quiet moments that I so enjoy, and just take it all in. Additionally, with the extra time I was able to return to various sites a few times throughout the day: the moving sun means some sites look better in different light. I also recommend walking around at sunset and at night, as many sites are lit up then and look beautiful.
DAY 1: Fly into Tashkent
DAY 2: Explore Tashkent
DAY 3: Morning departure from Tashkent to Samarkand by train (2 hours)
DAY 4, 5, 6: Explore Samarkand
DAY 7: Morning departure from Samarkand to Bukhara by train (less than two hours). Note that Bukhara’s train station is located 13km from the Old City
DAY 8, 9, 10: Explore Bukhara
DAY 11: Noon departure from Bukhara to Khiva by train (5 1/2 hours)
DAY 12, 13: Explore Khiva
Day 14: Fly from Urgench airport to Tashkent (Urgench is the closest airport and is a 30 minute drive from Khiva)
I made all travel arrangements on my own, but found it very informative to hire a local guide in each city (aside from Tashkent). The history of Uzbekistan is deep, long and twisted, and a good guide can provide a great deal of context around everything you will see. Here are the guides I used, all which I would recommend:
Samarkand - Denis: +998 91 550 27 72
Bhukara - Maksad (Max) @ Gani Travel LLC +998 936216560 or +998 997755333. BEST GUIDE!
Khiva - Sumayra +998 91 425 69 66
I only had one and half days in the capital city of Tashkent, and after arriving on the first day at 5 am, I kept my wandering to a minimum :-) The places I’d recommend visiting include:
Tashkent Metro stops: Some of the most interesting I have ever seen.
Chorsu Bazaar: I love a good local market, and this one claims to be the most important in Central Asia. It’s full of life, where locals buy and sell everything from meat to underwear!
Hazrat Imam Complex: This is the official religious center in the city and one of the top Tashkent tourist attractions. It will likely serve as your first introduction to the spectacular blue domes and elaborate tile work you will see during the rest of your trip around the country.
Founded in the 8th century BC, Samarkand has always been of particular interest to politicians, businessmen and travelers. The city was taken over in 329 BC by Alexander the Great and after that changed hands every couple of centuries – Western Turks, Arabs, Persians all made their mark, and the list goes on - that is until the town was nearly obliterated by Chinggis Khan in 1220. Thankfully, later on the ruler Timur decided to make Samarkand his capital, and he started building a new, almost-mythical city that became Central Asia’s economic and cultural epicenter.
What exists today in Samarkand are the bones of these great structures, painstakingly renovated over the years (many of the original structures’ exteriors were damaged by earthquakes and the typical age of from the elements). There are so many fascinating sites to see here and most are on a grand scale. The architecture itself left me in awe, not to mention the detailing on the buildings and the size of the structures.
All of the main sites are within walking distance of each other except for the observatory (you will need to take a taxi or your guide will drive you there). Key points of interest in Samarkand include:
Registan Square – the focus point of the city, it’s lovely both during the day and at night (make sure to tell the ticket taker that you plan to return so he gives your entrance ticket back). The three main buildings that surrounds the square are all unique.
Shah-i-Zinda memorial complex – this architectural jewel was my most favorite place in all of Uzbekistan. The tile work is overwhelming and breathtaking.
Other top attractions: Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Gur-Emir Mausoleum, Siob (“Old Town”) Bazaar, Ulugbek’s Observatory
RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS AND CAFES:
Bibikhanum Teahouse – Very well located with nice outdoor seating. I actually stopped here a few times. I really enjoyed the pumpkin manti.
Platan – This nice restaurant is in the newer part of town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the Register but worth it
The historic center of Bukhara is more than 2,000 years old and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a lot to see in this small city - it was my favorite of all the cities I visited around the country. Whereas Samarkand was full of elaborate mosaic tiles and fluted blue domes, Bukhara is a tad more muted. It is considered the holiest place in Central Asia and the most complete example of a medieval city in the area. The town has remained largely intact for centuries.
The most famous monument in the holy city of Bukhara is the 47-m high Kalyan minaret, built in the 12th century. At that time it was the highest minaret in Central Asia, and acted as a sort of lighthouse - trade caravans and pilgrims could see it in the distance and know they were nearing the holy city of Bukhara. It is said that when Genghis-Khan invaded the city in 1220, the only structure he did not destroy was the minaret because he was so enthralled by its beauty.
I adored Bukhara. I spent my days visiting and re-visting all the sites here. Again, there are almost too many to mention, so it’s advisable to get a guide to help you understand the history and the main points of interest. Must see places in Bukhara include the Kalon Minaret (mentioned above) and the nearby Kalon Mosque; Ark Fortress; Abdulaziz-Khan Madrassa, Bolo Hauz Mosque, Lyabi-Hauz square, and Chor Minor. The various domed bazaars themselves are architectural marvels and have housed people buying and trading goods for centuries.
RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS AND CAFES:
Lyabi House Bukhara – The main restaurant by the pond and fountain. Full of locals enjoying a meal. Decent food with a great atmosphere.
Minzifa Restaurant - Nice rooftop terrace. Best food I had in Bukhara.
Old Bukhara Restaurant - when I went for dinner the weather wasn’t nice enough to enjoy the outdoor terrace, but the food was very good.
Wishbone Cafe - Contemporary coffee house in a 16th century building. Tables available inside and outside. You will pass it many times as you wander around. It’s worth a stop.
Khiva is another key Silk Road town in Uzbekistan, and perhaps the most intact, remote, and preserved of all the ancient cities in Central Asia. There is a fortress surrounding Khiva’s inner city, and inside the walls are dozens of ancient madrassas, mosques, minarets, and clay-colored houses. Walking through this dusty, medieval town in the middle of the desert - often described as an “open air museum” - really feels like going back in time.
All of the must-see places in Khiva are located within the town walls, know as Itchan Kala. I paid 100,000 UZS for my pass, which covers access to almost all of the main points of interest inside Itchan Kala (excluding climbing to the watchtower at the Kuhna Ark and the top of the Islom Hoja Minaret) and is valid for 2 days. I recommend spending your first day in Khiva with a guide: most of the old madrassas are now museums, and many have lovely tile covered courtyards and other hidden surprises that you might not find on your own.
Use Day 2 of your pass to wander on your own, climb to the top of the watchtower, sit at cafes and people watch, investigate the uncrowded back alleyways. The town gets very crowded during the day. Khiva is popular with locals from surrounding towns: they come by the bus load to tour the sites, shop, pose for photos wearing silly looking hats and enjoy a day out with their families.
Key sites in Khiva include Tash Hauli, Juma Mosque, Kuhna Ark (including the watchtower), Kalta Minor Minaret, Islom Hoja Minaret. Isfandiyar Palace is a 10-minute walk outside the west gate and is the Emir’s summer palace ( I thought the 50,000 UZS was a lot for the entrance fee, it houses a great photo exhibit that makes the price worth it.)
RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS AND CAFES:
Bir Gumbaz - Typical Uzbek menu however the views of Kalta Minor minaret make it worth spending some time here!
Cafe Zarafshon - Good food served either in the courtyard or inside.
Khorezm Art Restaurant - inside a stone building opposite Allakuli Khan Madrassa, this restaurant has a nice dining room and good food.
Terasse Cafe - another great view from the terrace here. I stopped for an afternoon coffee but their menu looks good as well.
Kheivak Restaurant - I stayed at the Malika Kheivak hotel and this restaurant is in their courtyard. It’s full of traditional tapchan and tables and is a nice spot to chill for a while.
From a travel perspective, Uzbekistan is still fairly far under the radar (especially to Americans), which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. I visited early in the tourist season (late March / early April) and it was fairly quiet (except on the weekends, when locals descended upon the towns). The weather was near perfect for touring.
As a woman traveling alone, I felt completely safe in Uzbekistan. All of the locals that I met were extremely friendly, helpful and welcoming. Islam is the main religion of the country, although the majority of these Muslims are non practicing. Uzbekistan is a secular state, however, and therefore not all women wear the veil - in fact, it’s illegal to cover your face. That said, it’s always best to be conscious of where you are traveling, and I’d suggest dressing somewhat conservatively.
I came across a group of Americans on a small group tour several time: they were visiting all the same towns and sites that I was, but I am sure they paid multiples of what I did. Uzbekistan is very inexpensive as far as transportation, food and cost to enter the sites. Booking everything yourself is the best way to go and a piece of cake to do.
The travel industry is still developing in Uzbekistan. Outside of the capital city of Tashkent there are no large hotel chains (other than the Asia Hotel chain, which honestly looked quite sterile). I enjoy staying at small, more unique, boutique type accommodations and there are plenty in the main cities. There are no upscale accommodations to speak of: most hotels are fairly basis, but comfortable enough and safe. Bukhara has the best selection by far, and the hotels there definitely have the most appeal. I highly recommend booking your accommodations in advance.
The most common way of getting to Uzbekistan is by air, with the largest airport being Tashkent (TAS). Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines are the two main airlines that operate flights to Uzbekistan. I was already in central Europe, so I flew from Zagreb, Croatia, via Istanbul.
It’s easier now than ever for travelers to visit Uzbekistan, as the old methods for entering the country have been enhanced. If you are a citizen of the United States, Canada, the EU or other select countries, you can obtain an e-visa before arriving. The online process is easy, inexpensive and quick: make sure you visit the official Uzbekistan e-visa website (found at this link xxx) or else you may end up paying a “visa service” to help you with something you can easily do on your own.
MOVING AROUND WITHIN UZBEKISTAN
Once you are in country, traveling around Uzbekistan is easy as well. I understand that shared taxis and bus services are available in all the cities, but I traveled from town to town via train, and flew back from Khiva to Tashkent to avoid a long train ride. The trains were great: you can buy a business class ticket for cheap.
Traveler tip: I recommend buying tickets in advance at the train station to make sure you get a seat…I purchased my departure ticket for my next town on the day I arrived, since I was already at the train station. Also note it is required that you present your passport when you buy a train ticket.
Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik are the main languages spoken in Uzbekistan. While basic English is understood at most tourist attractions, there were far fewer people who spoke it than I expected. Staff at hotels all spoke English and every restaurant I visited had an English language menu. Hand signals and a smile can get you far! I never found the language barrier to be big enough to cause any real issues, but if you are nervous there’s always Google Translate to help.
Most places only take cash and in the local currency, called the Uzbek som (UZS). Don’t expect to use a credit card in Uzbekistan except maybe at the larger shops for big purchases like a rug. If I didn’t pay for my hotel online in advance they expected me to pay in cash (UZS, USD or Euro). A few years ago, the currency went through a change in Uzbekistan and the black market no longer exists, so either bring USD or Euro and convert to UZS or withdraw money from an ATM. There are some money machines that will accept US dollars and convert them to Uzbek Som. ATMs are everywhere and are specific to Mastercard vs. Visa. I’d recommend using an ATM when you find one that works, as several were out of money or out of service.
I had read that Wifi was hard to come by, but honestly I didn’t have a problem, as my hotels all offered it and the connection was pretty decent. Also, my T-Mobile international cell plan offers free data (2G speed) and free texting. It’s been available in 99% of the countries I have visited and I always recommend T-Mobile to my traveling friends.
I was underwhelmed by the food in Uzbekistan. Plov is the national obsession in Uzbekistan: it is basically rice with onion and carrots, plus either mutton, lamb or beef, cooked slowly in fat. I tried it once and it was fine - good but not great. I did enjoy the manti, which is a type of dumpling filled with meat or my favorite pumpkin. I had plenty of chicken and lamb kabobs (aka shashlik) as well as tomato & cucumber salads. Uzbekistan is a tea drinking culture, but search and you can find cafes with espresso machines!